Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Shady Ladies

The recent snowfall set off a different
type of storm at the Metropolitan Pool

This "ladies swim" thing at the Met Pool is plain ridiculous.

As you may know, the Metropolitan Pool has four sessions per week reserved for "ladies" only—Hasidic ladies, that is. That’s roughly a quarter of the available swim time. Truth be told, the official policy is that all women are allowed but no gentile will go there anymore because the Hasidim are likely to abuse and/or beat them if they try. Not very lady-like.

The word on the street is that this arrangement came about as part of a back-room deal between the Parks Department and the Hasidic elders. In exchange for partially funding the Pool’s 1992 renovation (the Hasidim claim they did, Parks says they didn’t), the Hasidim asked that several sessions be reserved for them, so their women could exercise without their modesty being offended by the presence of men. One shudders to hypothesize that this might be their modern-day version of a niddah. Of course, Parks could not officially reserve one of their pools for religious ritual, but they compromised by keeping the men out. The ladies themselves maintain the religious homogeneity on their own through bullying.

The ladies swim in their long dresses (which trail clouds of dye) and have a special technique for quickly swapping their wigs for bathing caps. They used to have their own Hasidic (female) lifeguard who they paid cash on the sly in the locker room at the end of each session. Parks closed this corrupt window and agreed to furnish a female lifeguard who is a Parks employee and certified life-saver.

Yesterday’s snow storm threw a monkey wrench in the works. Not surprisingly, the weather prevented the special female lifeguard from making it to work, leaving just the regular male lifeguard. This met water safety requirements but was unacceptable to the ladies and they demanded that the Met Pool request that the Crown Heights pool send over their woman. Obviously, Met could not commandeer another pool’s lifeguard. Undaunted, one of the Hasidic women called Crown Heights pretending to be from Metropolitan to ask the same thing. Smelling kvelte fish, Crown Heights rang Met back to confirm and the two were able to unravel the subterfuge. Perhaps they shared a laugh about it.

It’s silly and it’s ridiculous but most importantly it’s inappropriate. I’m sorry but there’s no reason why a public facility should be set aside for a single ethnic group. Can you imagine there being a session reserved for Sicilians or Puerto Ricans? Please. This episode does however illuminate how and why such an absurdity can persist. When the system doesn’t serve their needs, some people are willing to subvert it. You would be surprised what a gang of angry ladies can achieve, witness the French Revolution. But this was not about Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood. Quite the opposite.

I’m not sure which is more disgusting: this perversion of democracy or Meredith’s descriptions of the coat rack full of wigs with the furry hats still attached.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Nine Lives

Photo credit: Sebastian

There’s nothing worse than a blog about someone’s pet. They’re never nearly as interesting to the outside reader as they are for the writer. I beg you to make one exception for this story, however. Many people have told me that it’s important to share it.

A few weeks ago, our cat Creepers (famous to readers for his previous run-ins with the &*#%$& squirrel) just seemed to lose his interest in living. We could not figure out why but he lost all his [considerable] mojo and quit eating. He retreated into a cabinet and wouldn’t come out, which was the polar opposite of that outgoing cat’s standard routine. After a while we were sure it wasn’t some kitty version of a flu bug and he was literally wasting away, almost gone. We took him to the vet and they had no idea what had made him stop eating, but they could tell that his liver had stopped functioning. Since he had very little body fat to begin with, his body had started to consume its vital organs, beginning with his liver.

The vet said only two options were possible: off to a kitty hospital for tests and a feeding tube so he could be forcibly fed, or euthanasia. Money’s really tight, so kitty life support is not something we can manage. And he was over ten years old. The vet then looked us in the eye and said "I know where you’re going with this but he’s a good cat with a lot of years ahead of him if we can get the feeding on track."

So we took him to the animal hospital. None of the tests found any ultimate causes but they confirmed the liver thing, installed the feeding tube and wanted observe for several days (at the cost of about a grand a day). It broke our hearts but we couldn’t do that so we took him home.

We resolved to make a good-faith effort to not let him go without a fight but we were not optimistic.

Talk about a hassle. We had to force four big syringes of pudding-like food through a tube into a spirited cat. And we had to do that four times a day--a total of about two hours a day plus prep and cleanup and often required two people at a time. It was exhausting and dispiriting and we figured we would be able to keep it up for about two weeks. At least he was really sweet and relatively docile through the whole thing—or maybe too weak to fight.

After those two weeks, a surprise: he started getting better. Then much better. Now he is completely restored. In fact, as I started writing this, he jumped up from the floor and curled up on my shoulder (one of his many wacky habits). It’s really amazing. Just a few weeks ago, he was literally at death’s door and ready to go. Now he’s back and happy and full of life.

We can still hardly believe it and will think twice before giving up on anything. Or anyone.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Westside Wayside

Please wack me with a stick if you ever see me wearing one of those silly belts.
One of the great things about living in the City is that long runs don’t require loads of crap: just a few bucks in that little shorts pocket. In fact, I always laugh at people wearing hydration belts—they look like they’re trying to be Batman or something with his "utility belt." The inherent geekiness of running is made a thousand times worse by adding a teched-out version of a fanny pack. In the City, you can always find a bodega to buy gatorade. Better still, there are plentiful water fountains (in season).

That’s how I approached my latest long run: carry nothing. But there was a little flaw in my plan. My route took me over the Williamsburg Bridge, around the tip of Manhattan and up the West Side to 59th Street. That’s basically ten miles along greenways, which is beautiful, but completely devoid of bodegas (I guess that’s kind of the idea of a park, right?) and the winter weather meant that fountains were all turned off.

I was chugging up the West Side approaching Chelsea Piers and wondering if they might have a snack bar or something inside. Just before I got there, I noticed a little kiosk called "The Runner’s Station." I vaguely remembered that a certain shoe company had established the place for the New York City Half-Marathon but I had no idea that it was still in operation. It was perfect: they had everything I needed (and more) and at really reasonable prices. In fact, they gave me a free gel. Then I was on my way.

I hate to sing the praises of said shoe company but it’s a fabulous idea and an example of something that’s very important about New York City. The company obviously established the station as a marketing ploy to get into the consciousness of runners just out doing their thing. You could even rightly call it an inappropriate commercialization of the park. At the same time, it’s a great service, totally low-key and completely devoid of any sales pitch. It’s like a hotdog stand for runners, really. I’m a fan of the place (if not the company) and I applaud them for setting this thing up and running it at a perpetual loss. I’m savvy enough to accept the free gift without being suckered into buying something I don’t want or need.

The experience reminded me of something similar that happened at Burning Man a few years ago. We were walking blindly through a dust storm after the Man had burned and we had a serious case of the munchies. As if our thoughts had taken physical form, the fog suddenly parted to reveal a man grilling pop tarts on a hibachi out in the middle of the playa. (Only at Burning Man!) He asked if we would like one. Most certainly. Then we grooved our way to the next amusement, much satisfied.

I love when what we need is presented when we need it as if by gift from Heaven. That happens quite often in the City. Although the City certainly taketh her share and then some, she does present gifts, often when least expected.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Going Negative

Equinox Song and Solstice Song.
Oil Pastel on Stained Birch Plywood (24" x 24") 2008.

These two works combine what I like about the chairs and the trees. The material is back to the luscious Sennelier oil pastel, but on shellacked and stained birch plywood. The beauty of the wood itseld is very much in evidence, as are the geometric similarities between the trees and the wood itself. My project was to draw just the negative spaces and let physical shapes emerge from the support, which is quite visually active. I'm quite satisfied with the results.

The solstice piece is on its way to the LaGrange Biennial, while the other is so new that as of this writing, no one has seen it yet.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Out of Body

Image stolen from Wired New York.
Note that on this day, it was not snowy and the bridge was stuffed with traffic.

Ready for my surreal moment of the week? I was bombing (i.e. running real fast) though Old Calvary Cemetery (you might even say I was running like the Old Cavalry through Old Calvary) on a perfect clear afternoon. The light was perfect, photographic. When I really get rolling, time seems to stand still and my mind separates from my body. On easy days, I purposely slow my self down, but on my real workout days, I just let myself go to an "out of body" state where I feel nothing and my conscious mind goes to its own little place while my body does its thing. Like sleeping. That's when I run really fast and well and this was one of those days, fueled, no doubt by the three cups of coffee I had just consumed.

So I was cruising through the hills feeling all blissed out, when I looked up at the Kosciuszko Bridge, which looms overhead and to the south. I've crawled across that bridge a number of times on the way home from the beach, or just about every time I've driven on the BQE for that matter. But this time, the cars totally stopped. In fact, when I came around for my second lap (a mile and a half later), the cars were in the exact same positions. It was as if time was standing still. Combined with the runners high (who needs drugs, right?) and the beauty of the day, the effect was eerie. Not in an "oooooooooooo...spookey: we're in a graveyard" way (although I was) but in a Twighlight Zone way that made me look around for the inevitable Martian landers.

Then I headed home, changed clothes, picked Sebastian up from school, took him to the playground and enjoyed the nice day. Wonderful way to spend an afternoon in February.

McCarren Park Update

Rendering of finalized McCarren Park Pool Plan ( NYC Parks Department)

I've been given the green light to write a feature on McCarren Park for the summer issue of New York Runner. That means I'll have lots of reporting for the blog between now and then. How about this for starters:

It's Official: McCarren Park Pool to Re-Open
It's been reported in some neighborhood weeklies and on a few blogs (here and here for example). The compromise community plan was announced at a sparcely attended meeting yesterday to generaql acceptance. Work will start by the end the year and will run through 2011. Amenities include a surprisingly large swim area (75% of the original Olympic size) a diving area, ice skating in the winter, a gym (privately operated? we wonder based on this), and a recreation facility. No skate park, no concerts. Presumably, the adjacent wading area will be renovated as well. Good news for tots and millionaire condo owners. Bad news for club kids.

Friday, February 8, 2008

I’m with the Band: the Art of Jeremy Blake

Jeremy Blake, Working still from Glitterbest, 2006.
(Kinz, Tillou + Feigen via Corcoran)

This is the second installment in a three-part remembrance of my friend, artist Jeremy Blake, who passed away this past summer. The first part recollects when I first met Jeremy in high school and what it meant to me. This piece analyzes his work and the final, forthcoming, missive will muse on his passing.

Jeremy Blake (1971-1997) was the subject of twin retrospectives at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and at Kinz, Tillou + Feigen gallery in New York. Although his oeuvre was truncated sooner than anyone would like, these two shows present an opportunity to take an in-depth look at Jeremy’s work and to place it within a larger framework. Context is indeed essential to understanding his art, not only because he was attempting to create a new form of visual cultural document, but because Culture itself was his chief subject matter.

An Outsider Insider Artist
Jeremy came of age in the Washington DC Indie Scene. Washington DC is a city full of people from other places with big (and most often banal) ideas about how to change society. In response, the natives burrow into a tightly-knit and very self-consciously underground counterculture. Although there is no official membership, this subculture is self-identifying and often quite cliquish. Insider status is of overriding importance in DC, not only in government but, ironically enough, in the counterculture as well.

As is so often the case, musicians are the charismatic touchstones that define the scene. If the inner circle of a band is composed of managers, select roadies, groupies, and producers, Jeremy was part of a second concentric orbit around several DC bands, creating posters, teeshirts, album covers and the like. Jeremy followed this pattern throughout his life, as was most dramatically manifest in his ambiguous and ultimately tragic interaction with the singer/songwriter Beck.

The Corcoran exhibition (entitled Wild Choir: Cinematic Portraits by Jeremy Blake) presents a trio of monumental video portraits of/homages to three great cultural insiders—those who move the landscape of history by wielding tremendous power behind the thrones of fame, who win acclaim through their sheer creativity and brilliance, unsullied by shallow fame and glamour. All three works combine voiceovers with long sequences of video footage and still images (sometimes subtly animated) in a way that resembles a slideshow, screensaver or a tongue-out rock-and-roll version of a PowerPoint presentation. The imagery marries Jeremy’s earlier abstract motion paintings with found/made imagery (drawings, clipart, photographs, and film footage). The visual vocabulary is pretty consistent throughout but what distinguishes each piece from the next is the voice-over, which is the truly collaborative part.

The script for Reading Ossie Clark (2003) is excerpted from the diaries of the late (1942-1996) fashion designer who costumed the British Invasion; Sodium Fox (2005) is a collaboration with poet, rocker and "Gen-X Wiseguy" [wildchoir catalog] David Berman; and unfinished Glitterbest celebrates Malcolm McLaren, Punk Rock’s seminal imroviso. All three subjects were significant figures in the development of popular culture, but they left the role of "frontman" to others. Jeremy’s portraits celebrated figures whose paths toward fame matched his own approach.

Jeremy was a pop artist in the Warhol tradition but instead of painting iconic portraits of Marilyn Monroe, he would have celebrated her stylist, publicist, or whomever actually invented the legend she came to embody. He wasn’t interested in Fame itself, per se. He writes, "I’m not the kind of person who is drawn to fame or who worships fame, in fact I find fame to be a kind of tragic flaw. I’m only really interested in people who continue to take risks even when they’ve been offered the safety of fame." [catalog]

The invisible movers and shakers are free to continue to invent unfettered by the obligations that go with household-name status. Yet these semi-obscure visionaries are known to those who are really plugged into their culture—and that is a consummately Washingtonian line of thinking.

Invisible Connections

Jeremy Blake. Still from Sodium Fox, 2005 (Kinz, Tillou + Feigen via Corcoran)

The sequence of imagery in Jeremy’s portraits flows is a non-narrative stream of consciousness. What is the thread that connects diverse imagery such as hand-drawn candy hearts and grainy footage of cars going through tunnels? He does not offer an obvious answer and the voiceover often (but not always!) talks about something completely different. At times, it is defiantly obscure.

As with most portraits, these works say at least as much about the artist as they do their subject. In fact, one gets the sense that the subjects are mere launching points for musings on life’s hard questions: love, lust, divinity, and the aforementioned fame and fortune. Jeremy steps from one issue or observation to the next without attempting to define or solve anything. Like most seekers of Truth, he was at a loss to answer the questions he raised.

Still, one cannot escape the urge to look for a thread that stitches together the juicy images and sequences that together form the portraits. Jeremy took those unifying (and hidden) threads gravely seriously. His very first words in the Wild Choir catalog relate a defining moment from his youth when his father facetiously told him that all of Washington’s cultural institutions were connected by invisible tunnels so government functionaries could secretly hoard the nation’s cultural treasures. Jeremy believed it for a while, and actually never seemed to fully reject the story’s metaphorical implications. Bookend that with the bizarre conspiracy theories that ultimately led to his death and you see a soul that lived in a universe stitched together with invisible thread.

Whether or not the universe is friendly or malicious really just comes down to brain chemistry but the desire to untangle the invisible threads is dead-center in the new millenium’s cultural zeitgeist. In this way, Jeremy was plugged into the trunk-line of contemporary thinking. From string theory and its related "dark-matter" to hurricanes caused by butterflies in China and our incandescent desk lamps to the still-unexplained war in Iraq, the complexities of human experience has overwhelmed the old structures that allow us to make sense of them. Yet, one senses that experience does possess a structure of its own, even if it cannot be fully understood. It certainly can be celebrated or criticized though, and that is what the artist ultimately does.

A New Kind of Painting

Jeremy Blake. Stills from Reading Ossie Clark, 2003 (Kinz, Tillou + Feigen)
Jeremy’s most important works were experienced as looping video projections on gallery walls or flat screen television monitors, but he rejected the label of "video artist." He saw himself as a painter and he indeed continued making traditional oil paintings throughout. The memorial exhibition at ktf includes one of them. All of Jeremy’s works address the essential elements of painting: composition, color and form, line and shape. He had an extremely sophisticated color sense and he was an accomplished draftsman. All of that is on display in his work. The relationship between the flat screen (or wall) with the three-dimensional world is painterly in Jeremy’s work, not cinotographic or videographic. The images and sequences are meticulously "made," not "taken" or "shot." Thus his works are rightly described as "moving paintings" or, more adroitly, as "motion paintings."

Yet, when presented these are not paintings, they are videos whether Jeremy wanted to call them that or not. Still, even within that ambivalent domain, they are more accomplished than most. Perhaps owing to his very advanced knowledge of music, the works’ tempo is very carefully modulated, without the maladroit clumsiness or repetitiveness one usually encounters when falling asleep in front of (or being intimidated by) the video art one normally encounters in darkened gallery project rooms. In his portraits, the soundtracks are also good as Jeremy lets his great thinker subjects do the talking. Even Mozart let others write his libretti.

This collaboration was a crucial step forward for Jeremy and it moved his work much closer to maturity. The sound behind his earlier non-objective works was anemic at best in comparison to the visual component. For example when watching New Haven (2001), it took a while to realize that a persistent banging and ticking was not coming from the artwork at all but from a radiator in the room. It is never desirable for a work of art to be upstaged by the house plumbing. The introduction of found texts and guest voices blew the work like a fresh wind from adolescence toward mastery.

Jeremy Blake. Stills from Reading Ossie Clark, 2003 (Kinz, Tillou + Feigen)
The three portraits, though big steps forward for Jeremy, fail to satisfy in an other interesting way. They attempt to unite his earlier non-objective and purely formal flourishes from his earlier work with representational and photographic images and sequences in a multimedia Rauschenbergian re-load. Paint splashes across photographs or clip-art. Animated psychedelic mists waft from an oversexed model’s candied lips. But the union feels incomplete, hybrid. The interventions seem at times to be commentary about the underlying imagery, but at others they feel very random, as if the artist is playing with multimedia bells and whistles to see what they can do. It seems like an ongoing effort and it would have been interesting to see where he would have gone with it had he lived.

Lost Cause?
Of course one can always speculate about could-have-beens and that is a universal theme in writings about artists who die at a young age. It is clear, however, that Jeremy was deeply engaged in the quest to define a new form of visual presentation, one that is highly appropriate for the world we live in—more so perhaps than the 15th Century tools used by most of his painter contemporaries.

Jeremy had a rare talent and an ambitious agenda: to reinvent painting. His heroes were transformational figures, taste-makers who managed to exert tremendous influence while maintaining complete aesthetic integrity by either artfully dodging the light of celebrity or by redirecting it on others. Whether or not Jeremy could have reconciled both goals is endlessly debatable, as is the question of whether their combined weight contributed to his demise. The pursuit was certainly admirable though and the works of art that it yielded are fascinating, beautiful and full of important questions that elude easy answer.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Freebasing Credence

This annoying photo becomes hillarious when you read the interventions.
Click for a better view. The neighborhood's not gone yet...

I was sitting in Oslo [Northside] this afternoon working on the next installment of my Jeremy Blake remembrance when I overheard a conversation that was so Williamsburg, I just had to blog it.

The guy behind the counter has a friend who is an acupuncturist who sometimes uses harmonic tones with her needles. It makes perfect sense to me: I’ve spent my share of hours on the rehab table with an ultrasound wand on my arches or calves. Sound penetrates and loosens things up even better than a massage in some cases. I could imagine that the extremely targeted approach of acupuncture, combined with harmonics’ proven chemistry-altering properties could do wonders. There’s a whole literature on the practice.

Then he got to wondering about what you could do with a three-part bluegrass harmony, combined with acupuncture. The possibilities seem limitless right? Definitely spiritual if we’re talking Bill Monroe. I wouldn’t want to try his idea though: Gillian Welch. Sounds like a swift road to depression, or worse!

That kind of free-flowing and wide-ranging conversation almost makes me want to go back to being a barista. The good thing about living in Williamsburg is that chatter is always available without the appallingly low wages, scalding water, and early hours.